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Marquionna’s Story: Empowering Young Leaders Through Mentorship

A picture of our Mentors in their Chicago Scholars swag during last year’s New Scholar Orientation.

It’s a balmy summer day in Chicago and roughly 600 newly minted Chicago Scholars take a reprieve from the heat and funnel into a cool auditorium at Illinois Institute of Technology. The room sparks with nervous excitement as they focus their attention on the day’s presentations. It’s New Scholar Orientation, an annual event where Scholars learn all about our seven-year program: college counseling, career and leadership development, and more.

The conversation pivots to mentorship. Scholars are told stories about infamous mentor/mentee relationships like Valerie Jarrett and Barack Obama, and even Yoda and Luke Skywalker (this year may even feature a Baby Yoda extended storyline). There’s a pause. The back doors open, and the auditorium is filled with cheers as nearly 200 Mentors from Chicago’s professional community storm the room to meet their new mentees.

Although New Scholar Orientation will be virtual this year, it will include a chance for Mentors and Scholars to first meet online. After all, mentorship is at the core of what we do at Chicago Scholars. Mentorship offers a powerful resource for youth seeking guidance as they enter college, start their career, and when making important life decisions. The impact is even greater for young adults who face opportunity gaps. Even as U.S. high school and college graduates reach record highs, students of color and those from low-income and first-generation backgrounds still lag behind their white and wealthier peers.

Studies show that mentorship can offer a powerful boost for these students. For example, young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor (The Mentoring Effect, 2014). Beyond college, mentorship prepares young adults for their careers by helping them set career goals and taking the steps to realize them.

Having a mentor means having someone “walk with you through your journeys in life. They are people that help you see the things in yourself that you’re too blind to see.”

At Chicago Scholars, we offer a two-year mentorship program that supports Scholars through the college application process, their transition to college, and throughout their freshmen year. However, many of our Scholars and Mentors find that their bonds last a lifetime. For Marquionna Gordon, a Chicago Scholar and graduating senior at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, having a mentor means having someone “walk with you through your journeys in life. They are people that help you see the things in yourself that you’re too blind to see.”

During her junior year of college in 2019, Marquionna had the opportunity to study abroad and explore different engineering techniques at the globe’s leading companies. Despite encouragement from a university professor and the curiosity that international travel piqued in her, she still faced the decision with trepidation. “I was afraid at first to travel internationally,” she confided. “Before going to college, I had only been to one other state.” Also weighing on her mind was the financial burden of the trip and concerns from her family who were also strangers to international travel. Looking for guidance she reached out to her Chicago Scholars Mentor, Nicole Granacki.

Nicole is no stranger to travel and has enjoyed a mostly international career. She currently works for IES Abroad, an organization that educates students to become global leaders through study abroad and internship experiences. After discussing Marquionna’s desire to study abroad and the financial challenges looming over her, Nicole jumped into action and advised her to apply to Chicago Scholars’ Educational and Leadership Development (ELD) Opportunity Grant—which provides financial support for college Scholars to engage in educational and leadership opportunities—and wrote her letter of recommendation. Throughout the process, Nicole touted the benefits of abroad experiences and encouraged Marquionna to have the confidence and determination to make her dreams a reality.

Marquionna was awarded the ELD grant, coincidentally on her birthday, and was excited to find that the grant covered the entire cost. She was ready to embark on a twelve-day whirlwind tour of France, Italy, and Scotland. Beyond the opportunity to network with the globes most esteemed engineering practitioners, she also was able to “learn a new language, try new food, and learn other people’s points of view on life and America.” She left her abroad experience with an appreciation for global diversity and a newfound zeal for travel.

For Nicole, being there for Marquionna exemplifies what mentorship is all about — “having someone there to support you who is invested in your success, and who wants to help you dream big.”

Interested in mentoring with us?


Marquionna Gordon is a graduating senior at North Carolina A&T State University and is studying for her MCATs as she prepares for a career in medicine. 

Nicole Granacki is a Program Manager at IES Abroad. She has been a mentor with Chicago Scholars for over 10 years, co-founded the Chicago Scholars Associate Board, and has also been honored as Chicago Scholar’s 2019 35 Under 35.

While we at Chicago Scholars value global experiences and learning, we are aligned with the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization’s recommendations to practice physical distancing measures. These include limiting non-essential travel. We are hopeful that global efforts to care for others will scale back the spread of COVID-19 so that we and our Scholars can enjoy the benefits that global travel has on knowledge, empathy, and leadership.